Mayor defends steps taken in development process

In The Republic’s Sept. 27 editorial, “Secrecy in government fails public, democracy,” the editors sharply criticize me and a number of public officials appointed by me for operating in “secrecy” and “failing the public and democracy.” They falsely claim that we are not publicly discussing plans for developing an advanced manufacturing industrial park at the former Walesboro Airport.

Ironically, this criticism comes on the heels of special joint public meeting of the Columbus Redevelopment Commission and the Airport Board called by me and the president of the Airport Board on Sept. 17.

At that meeting, we did exactly what they claim we failed to do. We publicly discussed and publicly took action on the next steps of this important economic development project. It was the latest public discussion on a project that we have been publicly discussing regularly for more than two years.

Contrary to the extremely misleading editorial, no decision regarding the development of an industrial park at the former Walesboro airport was ever made in private or in secrecy. No dollar of spending was committed or approved in private or in secrecy. These discussions and actions took place at the special public meeting Sept. 17 at City Hall.

In the eyes of the editors, my “failing” was for me and a handful of employees/officials of the Airport and Redevelopment Commission to interview engineering firms to perform the engineering of the infrastructure for the industrial park.

As is legal and is common, everyday practice by all government entities, these preliminary vetting interviews were not held in public meetings. Employees/officials who participated in the vetting process disclosed their opinions and recommendations to the boards in a public meeting.

The decisions to hire an engineering firm, which firm to hire and how much to pay the firm were made publicly, with public discussion among public officials and with public input. The process was open, transparent and above reproach.

The editors contend, “Discussions of the Walesboro development plans are best suited in the public arena, as were those for redevelopment of the Crump Theatre and the proposed amphitheater in Mill Race Park.”

However, the process I just described to hire an engineering firm for Walesboro was the same we followed to hire architectural firms for both the Crump and amphitheater projects. Groups of individuals met with multiple architectural firms in private meetings but discussed and made their recommendations to hire certain architectural firms in public meetings.

What is most ironic of all, the publisher of The Republic, Chuck Wells, was one of those individuals participating in the private meetings with potential architectural firms for the amphitheater project. Yet, Mr. Wells and his editors do not criticize Mr. Wells for his “closed door” meetings and for operating in “secrecy.” Instead, they hold up the private/public process he participated in as a model process of transparency.

The editors compare me and my administration’s actions on Walesboro instead to those of the previous administration — whereby public officials, including Councilman Jim Lienhoop, created their own private corporation, CDI, and unlawfully funneled your money through it to spend your money in secrecy and unlawfully handed out lucrative contracts and leases in non-competitive processes.

This comparison is outrageous and shameful on the part of the publisher and editors and amounts to an irresponsible cheap shot.

I meet with businesses every working day. That is a central part of my job. Yet official action with any business is always determined in public meetings. I’ve brought unprecedented transparency and accessibility to these meetings by live streaming and recorded playback of them on the Internet.

In marked contrast to the Sept. 27 editorial attack, the next day’s front page centerpiece story in The Republic covers Councilman Lienhoop’s meetings with businesses in Asia. The editors do not attack him for these private and closed-door meetings and for operating in secrecy and thereby failing the public and democracy.

The editors could reasonably criticize the effectiveness or cost of Lienhoop’s trip but no one could reasonably criticize him for having private meetings with businesses and operating in secrecy in this case.

Publisher Chuck Wells and his editors are the ones failing the public and democracy with their biased and misleading reporting and editorials.

Despite the editors’ unfounded accusations otherwise, I have never forgotten what I campaigned for and I have delivered on my campaign promises.

I assure you that I continue to dutifully serve you with great integrity and unprecedented openness and transparency and will do so until Dec. 31.

Kristen Brown is the mayor of Columbus.